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Science is nothing like this by Mark Lattery (05-17-16)

If an experienced academic with no prior knowledge of science were to carefully study the U.S. science classroom to understand what science is or how science is done, this person would arrive at several odd conclusions. First, science is keenly interested in the names of things; in fact, scientists invest so much time creating and memorizing terms, this is their main intellectual contribution to society. Scientific names are not just labels, however: to name something is to supply an explanation. For example, to assert that “gravity" makes things fall is to explain why things fall. Scientists who are especially good at memorizing information win lots of prizes and receive encouragement to continue their work. Scientists also investigate nature through well-defined steps called the scientific method. This process leads to equations that summarize the results of controlled experiments. Scientists agree on the correct equations; yet, it is important to validate these equations by the same experiments that produced them. If the equations are not confirmed, experiments must be redone until the problem is fixed. To answer a scientific question, it is necessary to rummage through a list of equations, pick one that fits the situation, and enter the appropriate input values. The aim of all this effort is to obtain a number at the back of a book. Fortunately, most scientific problems can be solved in less than ten minutes.

Science is nothing like this.

“But differences between classroom science learning and scientific practice are not relevant!” the reader might protest. “The aims of the classroom are purely pedagogic and persuasive. The purpose of science teaching is not to communicate what science is like or how science is done, but to communicate the subject-matter content clearly to the students. The bright ones will go on in science and learn what science is all about later, in college or graduate school.” This assertion collapses on the following point: It is impossible to teach science without communicating something about what science is or how it is done. If the instructor covers the subject matter rapidly, students conclude that scientists value mental speed; if multiple competing models are never considered, scientific knowledge must be uncontroversial; if the instructor does not encourage students to articulate and defend their views, scientific discourse must be unimportant; if scientific principles are always presented at the outset, scientific knowledge must be received knowledge; and, so forth. As students struggle to process this distorted image of science, they ask themselves privately: “What would it be like to be a scientist?” “How do scientists really know things?” “What makes something scientific?” “Could I be a scientist?” and “Do I want to be a scientist?” Everything we say and do as science teachers informs these questions. 

[03-10-16] Mach and Models

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